You aced the interview — congrats! But wait, what about the employment background check?

It takes, on average, about six weeks to secure a job from the time you submit the application to when you receive the offer letter. Often, the last hurdle to jump — after a successful interview — is the background check for employment. 

Having a company run a background check (also called an employment screening) is a pretty good indication that they're interested in offering you the position. Since employment background checks cost money, most companies will not go through with one without cause. In fact, according to a 2019 report, 95 percent of surveyed employers say they use one or more types of background checks, cites the Society for Human Research Management (SHRM). 

What is looked at in a background check for employment?

According to Glassdoor, employer background checks can cover your employment background, credit history, driving records, and criminal history.

Employment history

It is imperative that you be completely honest on your job application, avoiding even the smallest fib on a resume, or the results may upset you after a background check.

One of the most common white lies is stretching employment dates to cover a gap. If you can't remember the exact dates, it is best to perform some research instead of guessing. Be sure to use the mm/yyyy format for dates on your resume, as that is what an applicant tracking system (ATS) scan will look for. A company that checks your employment history can find out employment dates, the title of the roles you've held, and possibly why you left previous jobs.

Credit history

There are a plethora of reasons a company may investigate your credit during background checks. The most common reason is that your credit history can demonstrate how responsible you are. These credit checks do not include your credit scores; however, they do show whether you've paid things on time and will reflect past addresses and employers. If you're applying to a job that requires handling money, the credit report will inform the company about whether or not hiring you would be a financial risk after the employment screening.

Driving records

Employers are liable for you if you're on the road for business purposes. As such, they will review your driving record if it is one of the duties involved. They want to ensure you have a good driving record so they know that they're putting a responsible person in one of their vehicles. Also, an employee with a poor driving record can negatively affect the company's insurance rates.

Criminal history

Companies must provide safe work environments for their staff. Many believe that criminal background checks during an employment screening are vital to keeping a safe working environment. Simply having something negative in your criminal records doesn't automatically mean that you won't get the job. Again, honesty is the best policy

The U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has a number of rules businesses must follow when searching and using criminal background checks for employment. For example, if two people from different racial backgrounds have the same criminal record, a company can't deny employment to a candidate of one background while offering employment to the other. This type of discrimination goes against EEOC guidelines.

Why do employers use background checks?

Simply speaking, the background check process is when companies want to verify that you're the right person for the job. They don't go into a background check expecting to find something — quite the opposite in fact. Employers only want to verify the information you've already provided.

How to prepare for a background check

Some facets of a background check can't be changed, but if you suspect an employer is going to request a background check, there are some steps you can take to prepare if you're feeling concerned.

Start by requesting copies of your records. You can get a free credit report online from each of the three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) through Annual Credit Report. Although an employer won't see your credit score, they may see your debt-carrying accounts or any bills sent to collections. You can take steps to start fixing up your credit report, but do note these updates won't happen overnight. It can take up to one or two months for a credit report to update, so it's best to start this process sooner than later.

If your driving record is going to be particularly important for a job, you can request a copy from your state's Department of Motor Vehicles. This process will vary by state, but typically you can request this online, in person, or via phone or mail.

How long does an employment background screening take?

It depends. If you're applying for a non-federal job, the background check will take about a week. If you're applying to a federal position, the background check can take a couple of months. Of course, these timeframes are for the background check itself. You are not likely to hear from the company the same day they get the results. They have to review the results before they reach out to you.

The most likely reason for a background check to be delayed is a discrepancy with the information, so provide complete and accurate information to speed up the process.

What happens after a background check for a job?

Once the company receives your completed background check, it will take a few days for the hiring manager to review it. If you've passed the employment background check, you'll likely receive an email with the job offer!

Give the employer ample time to perform the background check and then follow up with them. It is possible that the hiring manager has the completed background check but hasn't had time to review it. Your email could be the thing that reminds them to check over it.

Does the employer have to disclose if I fail the background check?

There are federal laws that protect your rights in relation to background checks:

  1. The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) dictates that employers must get your permission to run a credit check. They must also provide a copy of the report and a “Summary of Rights” if they decide not to hire you based on the credit report.
  2. If an employer decides not to hire you based on information in your background check, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requires employers to provide you with a copy of the consumer report that was used. This gives you a chance to review the report and explain any negative information. You also have the right to dispute incorrect information and get a new report within 60 days.

How to dispute an incorrect background check

Errors have been known to occur during an employment background check, and this can cost job seekers a new position. Common errors include:

  • Incorrect criminal record

  • Outdated information

  • Mistaken identity

If an employer lets you know that your background check is costing you the job, request a copy of it (per the FTC requirement mentioned above). If you discover there's an error on your background check, you can dispute it.

To start this process, visit the background check company's website. You may have to file a dispute online, via phone, or by mail. For instance, GoodHire, a popular background check website, lets you file a dispute online. Their team will investigate and get back to you within 30 to 45 days. If the information is in fact incorrect, they'll fix it and send the employer an updated background check.

It's also possible to sue over an inaccurate background check. Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, you have the right to sue the background check company.

The ethical conflict of background checks

Some people consider employment background checks to be unethical, particularly the check on criminal history. One argument is that it prevents previously incarcerated individuals from re-entering the workforce and reintegrating into society.

Another argument is that it is inherently discriminatory because of the nature of the U.S. criminal justice system and the way BIPOC people, especially Black Americans, are disproportionately arrested and tried and thus are more likely to fail an employment background check.

With that said, many are in favor of these background checks to ensure a safe and secure work environment out of the concern for those with a criminal history to re-offend. According to a report cited by Society for Human Research Management (SHRM), employers say they conduct background checks to:

  • Protect employees, customers, etc.

  • Improve the quality of hires

  • Comply with legal mandates

  • Protect company reputation

  • Prevent and/or reduce theft, embezzlement, or other criminal activity

Ban the box

When the topic of background checks is brought into question, you may hear about “Ban-The-Box,” a law that refers to the “box” on job applications that asks candidates about their criminal history. 

This law, originally established in 1998, forbids employers from considering a job candidate's criminal history until after a job offer is made. Since its inception, 36 states and 150 cities have adopted it, according to the National Employment Law Project.

However, there is some criticism around this movement. According to U.S. News & World Report, some studies show this practice could negatively impact BIPOC job candidates. Since employers can't ask about criminal histories upfront in the hiring process, they may not give job candidates, especially Black and Hispanic males, a fair chance.

Fair chance hiring

There's also another practice in the conversation, called fair chance hiring.

“Essentially, fair chance hiring mandates that employers only assess a candidate's criminal record after the candidate has been interviewed and is considered qualified for a role,” reports the Harvard Business Review. “To have a true impact, employers must go beyond 'ban the box' policies and be proactive about establishing a pipeline of qualified candidates who, because of their criminal records, they're otherwise likely to miss out on meeting.”

The Harvard Business Review goes on to cite statistics from the American Civil Liberties Union, noting that people with criminal records tend to stick around longer, and they are no more likely to be fired for misconduct than someone without a record.

Are background checks on their way out?

However, this doesn't mean you can expect background checks to go away anytime soon. According to SHRM's anticipated 2021 employment screening trends, continuous screening will become more common due to the increase of remote work. That means employers may run regular background checks on employees or contractors. But this, of course, will need to be disclosed to and authorized by employees.

That being said, SHRM predicts criminal records used for employment screening purposes will become more litigious in the coming years due to high unemployment and the current economic climate.


Your job is your livelihood. Staying informed of (and exercising) your federally protected rights may mean the difference between employment and unemployment. By being thorough and honest, you ensure a faster turnaround for your background check.

Is your resume accurately highlighting your achievements and skills? Check today with a free resume review.

This article was updated in March 2021. It contains work written by Carson Kohler.

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